Pranav Kakhandiki ’24: Imaging materials with machine learning

Pranav Kakhandiki ’24 presents his senior thesis
  • Hometown: San Jose, CA
  • Applied and Engineering Physics, Disa Lab

AEP senior Pranav Kakhandiki
Top: Pranav Kakhandiki ’24 presents his senior thesis in May, 2024. Above: Pranav Kakhandiki ’24

Why Cornell, and why AEP in particular?

I chose Applied and Engineering Physics (AEP) because of the breadth of physics courses offered, the freedom to explore my other academic interests, and the interdisciplinary research opportunities. During my freshman year, I was still deciding between AEP and computer science. It was in the class Mechanics and Special Relativity (PHYS 1116) with Professor Kyle Shen where I learned for the first time how to properly go about solving physics problems, and was also nudged towards choosing AEP.

Tell us about your research experience as an undergrad in AEP.

I’ve been involved in various research projects in AEP—from soft-matter physics, to ultrafast lasers, to particle physics, to quantum materials. By working on vastly different projects, I have been able to hone a broad physics skillset. 

I’m currently working with AEP Professor Ankit Disa on developing a machine-learning algorithm for thin-film imaging. Currently, it’s quite difficult to accurately image epitaxial thin films with x-rays, especially large ones. Imaging these materials is crucial in unveiling their behavior, where we often see emergent and exotic quantum phenomena, such as magneto-optic, superconducting, and ferroelectric properties. It is difficult to express how fascinating these films are, so I’ll put it like this: if you put five bad basketball players together, you get a bad basketball team. But, but if you grow lanthanum aluminate (LaAlO3) on strontium titanate (SrTiO3)—both of which are insulators— in such a way so that their crystal structures contact each other optimally (epitaxially) you get a conductor at the interface! There’s a huge realm of intriguing and intricate behavior hidden in these materials, and I believe it is these sorts of advancements in fundamental materials research that will power the next wave of information processing and energy use. We’ve named the tool that we’re developing MAMBA (Machine-learning for Material Bragg-rod Analysis), because we are aiming to provide an alternative to the already existing COBRA (Coherent Bragg-Rod Analysis). 

After my sophomore year, I interned at the Stanford Linear Accelerator where I worked on using neural networks to make predictions about the output of an x-ray free electron laser (XFEL). This was part of a larger collaboration, which led to me being a co-author of a paper published in Nature Communications. In the summer of 2023, I won an Engineering Learning Initiatives Research grant to support my research.

Has your view of your future changed since you began at AEP?

Coming to Cornell I was primarily interested in particle physics and cosmology because that was what I had seen the most documentaries about. Taking classes and doing research at Cornell helped me see that there are many other fascinating fields within physics with heavily impactful research – ultimately this led me to decide to pursue a Ph.D. at Stanford in applied physics studying quantum materials, with the hope of discovering and engineering materials with exotic properties. 

When you reflect on your time in AEP and at Cornell, what stands out?

The crown jewel of my Cornell experience was my study-abroad experience in Geneva during my junior year. I was able to take classes at the University of Geneva in quantum optics, group theory, and French, as well as complete a 6-month internship in computational particle physics at CERN (the European Council for Nuclear Research). I got to travel around Europe, and I made good friends along the way. And I can now order an espresso and croissant in French! 

What advice to you have for students who are considering affiliating with Engineering Physics?

As a freshman or sophomore, don’t stress too much over whether the research you’re doing is precisely what you want to pursue later on. It’s more important to develop broad physics knowledge, intuition, and also to learn how research works.Also, don’t be discouraged from studying abroad! While it is harder to fit a study-abroad program into the AEP curriculum, with planning, it is possible. There are many interesting programs with various opportunities.

What are your hobbies? What do you do for fun when not at school?

I love playing racket sports, such as squash, badminton, and especially tennis. In my free time I also like reading, eating good food (occasionally made by me), and hanging out with friends. I also tutor physics at the learning strategies center, because this is a great way for me to contribute to physics education and also stay sharp on my basics. Finally, I like trying new things. I recently got into learning how to pick locks, although there’s no need to worry quite yet because I’m not very good. 

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